Foreign Affairs

India’s water crisis requires a local solution

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India’s water crisis offers a further example of the terrifying effects of climate change and provides a staggering reminder that the world is currently facing a climate emergency. Constant access to water in the world’s second-most populous country is only expected to worsen, with the total population predicted to increase to 1.6 billion by 2050.

According to a report last year by the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog (Hindi for Policy Commission), ‘600 million people in India face high to extreme water stress’. The same report also stressed that around ‘three-fourth of the households in the country do not have drinking water at their premise’.

At a time when millions struggle to access clean water, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised that piped water will reach all Indian homes in the countryside by 2024. However, with reports that 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people, there are increasing fears that the efforts will not be enough.

These ongoing water crises are global. Nearly half of the human population suffers from water scarcity, and thus individuals are prevented from fulfilling their drinking, cooking and sanitation needs. Around the world, 780 000 people die each year due to inadequate water and access to sanitation.

Chennai, India’s sixth-largest city of 9 million, is close to running out of water. Chembarambakkam Lake, one of the city’s biggest reservoirs, is now an area of cracked mud. A pipe which is supposed to take water to the city is completely dry, and with trains arriving every few days to supply emergency water, the issue of class divide is consistently stark.

For residents who can afford to, water can be purchased from private tankers who have carried it from borewells located beyond the city. However, those who are less fortunate must queue in the early hours of the morning in the hope of accessing emergency water.

In recent decades, India has made improvements to both the availability and quality of its drinking water systems. Yet water resource planning has been impacted by the country’s increasingly large population, and therefore rural areas have been left out. The extent of rapid growth in India’s urban areas has also meant that government solutions have been stretched, which has increased over-privatisation.

Chennai depends on the fall monsoon to provide half the city’s annual rainfall. Last December, the rainfall ended early and the city remained dry for more than 200 days. On June 20, the city which is suffering from its worst water crisis in 70 years, finally received some rain. However, this delayed monsoon turned out to be a disappointing light shower.

Therefore, India’s annual monsoon, which provides around 75% of the country’s rainfall, is becoming less reliable. Prolonged dry spells and erratic monsoons over the past few years have devastated farmers and allowed reservoirs to become non-existent. The monsoon traditionally brings heavy rain to South Asia between June and October but, particularly in recent years, has at times failed to show up altogether.

Additionally, the heavy monsoon rains unfortunately neither solve or aid the water crisis, as the recent floods have simply prevented the transportation of goods.

Reasons behind the problem of water scarcity include the inefficient use of water for agriculture, the release of chemicals and effluents into rivers, streams and ponds as well as a lack of efficient management and distribution.

Not only this, but India can still be identified as a water-surplus country, receiving enough rain annually to meet the needs of its increasingly large population. Theoretically, the level of rain which India receives every year is enough to satisfy the needs of over a billion people.

According to the Central Water Commission, India receives 4,000 billion cubic meters of rain annually, yet only around 3,000 billion cubic meters of water each year is required. The primary issue, therefore, lies with how much of the rain is captured, with estimations placing the number at only 8% – among the lowest in the world.

Therefore, although some areas of India experience a relatively wet climate, due to the lack of rain catchment programs, most of the water is wasted and unable to be used. Thus, in various areas, rain harvesting could be one solution, as collected water could be used for agriculture and human consumption with improved filtration practices.

Rather than turning to local solutions, governments are consistently turning to large-scale projects including linking remote rivers and constructing mega-dams. But, these ongoing problems of water scarcity are local, and therefore need local solutions.

Ultimately, to stand a chance of surviving the current climate breakdown, India needs a collective power of small-scale efforts. One example of such efforts lies in the Kumbharwadi watershed of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, in which a program engaged the local population in land-sculpting and tree-planting to capture water. As a result, groundwater levels rose, and agricultural income increased.

Although these local efforts to maintain natural resources require more manual labour, with India’s current unemployment rate being at its highest point since the 1970s, these advancements translate to jobs.

Considering 90% of the country’s fresh water is used for agriculture, India could place its focus on supporting conservation practices and also reconsidering the exportation of various water-intensive crops such as rice and cotton. For each kilogram of product, these crops require the use of thousands of litres of water, helping India claim the title as the world’s largest exporter of water-intensive goods.

Besides, 70% of that agricultural water comes from groundwater, which has been steadily depleting for years. Groundwater itself also makes up 40% of the country’s supply, and residents are having to pump deeper and deeper to access it.

Whatever the means, India is in dire need of a solution. As the demand for water continues to increase, with demand predicted to reach twice the available supply by 2030, one thing’s for sure, it’s going to be a challenge to quench the country’s devastating thirst.

Plenty of organisations are working directly with people affected by the water crisis in India and across the world, and if you’re feeling generous and want to donate, or simply want to learn more, the following websites are recommended:


The Water Project


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